Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Walmart and the Democrats

My parents and I are a study in contrasts...sort of.

I'm a centrist Republican, they are dyed-in-the-wool New Deal Democrats. I drive a late model Volkswagen made in Mexico, they are retired autoworkers who are proud United Auto Workers members. Where these contrasts get a bit strange is where we shop for discount goods: I tend tend to shop at Target; they shop at Walmart.

Walmart. This behemouth of a retailer is considered basically evil by many people. I've decided not to shop there because of some of their labor practices. My parents are quite aware of this, and yet shop there anyway. In fact, when the visited me here in Minnesota recently from my native Michigan, they got gas at the local Sam's Club because they are members and it's cheaper than regular gas.

I don't understand why my parents shop at a place that seems antithetical to their beliefs, but they do and maybe I don't have to understand.

What's interesting to me is that many of the people who object to Walmart tend to be more middle-class. People like myself like to go to Target which tends to market itself as an upscale discounter. Walmart appeals to the working class folk like my parents who don't care about design, they just want something at a good price.

All of this has led to me to wonder if a lot of the protest against Walmart has more to do with class than it has to do with things like health care or wages. I mean, Target probably pays the same wages that Walmart does in markets where they both compete. Walmart is even getting into the organics business,joining the trend among retailers to offer healthier and sustainable foodstuffs.

The Los Angles Times has a worthwhile editorial about how the Democrats are shamefully demonizing Walmart. Here's a choice quote:

At an anti-Wal-Mart rally last week in Iowa, [Joe]Biden noted that the retailer pays people $10 an hour, and then asked: "How can you live a middle-class life on that?" It's clearly the company's fault, at least from a skewed senatorial perspective, that all Americans cannot live a comfortable middle-class life. How dare it pay prevailing retail wages? Bayh, who appeared at another rally, was quoted as saying that Wal-Mart is "emblematic of the anxiety around the country." That may be true. But if it's the emblem he's worried about, he should stay in Washington and work to make healthcare more affordable for working families.

The gusto with which even moderate Democrats are bashing Wal-Mart is bound to backfire. Not only does it take the party back to the pre-Clinton era, when Democrats were perceived as reflexively anti-business, it manages to make Democrats seem like out-of-touch elitists to the millions of Americans who work and shop at Wal-Mart.

The fact is, many working class joes, like my parents, shop at Walmart. They care about issues, but they tend to want their government to solve those issues. They aren't that concerned about how evil a company is. Which gets me back to class. Are those who rail against Walmart really concerned about worker wages or are they just looking down at a retailer that caters to people that aren't as trendy? And are the Dems making a mistake in taking up a cause that is championed by people who may not really be in tune with the realities of the American working class?

The Times seems to be making that point:

One reason the Democrats may have a tin ear on this subject is demographic. Certainly most of the party's urban liberal activists are far removed from the Wal-Mart phenomenon. The retailer has thrived mainly in small towns and exurbs, which is one reason a Zogby poll found that three-quarters of weekly Wal-Mart shoppers voted for President Bush in 2004, and why 8 out of 10 people who have never shopped at Wal-Mart voted for John Kerry. Denouncing the retailer may make sense if the goal is to woo primary activists, but it's a disastrous way to reach out to the general electorate. Or to govern, for that matter.

The fact is, a lot of my friends who dis Walmart are people like myself: we shop at more upscale places like Ikea and Trader Joe's. These places are precieved as being more upper middle class; Walmart is more working class; and despite all the talk of caring for the less off, I would bet that a lot of those who profess Walmart as Satan and shop at these more upscale places wouldn't want to be caught dead with those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

These days, I still don't shop at Walmart as much. But my opinion of how to deal with them is changing. Maybe instead of demonizing them, we should try to find ways to work with them. It's a good thing that Walmart is pursuing the organic market and that should be praised. Maybe we should also work with them to find ways to provide better living standards instead of always fighting with them. Maybe if politicians are so concerned about low wages and inadaquate or no health care, they should work for a better minimum wage and affordable health care in Washington (and not just bring it up during election years).

I think that if the Democrats want to become a majority party again, then it needs to actually become the "lunch box party" again. When I see more Kerry bumper stickers in more affulent areas than in working class areas, you know the Dems have a class problem.

As for those who detest Walmart; maybe we need to go there once in a while just to see "how the other half lives" instead of sitting in our comfortable areas talking about stuff we don't really know anything about.


Justin Gardner said...

Honestly, Wal Mart sucks. The layout is chaotic, the quality of their products is suspect and it's just not a good experience.

And do know, this is coming from somebody who went to Wal-Mart for years, but given the choice between Wal-Mart and Target, it's Target every single time. There's really no comparison.

Also, let it be known that Wal-Mart was marking prices down so low a few years back (before they got caught) that they were LOSING money on them. All in order to drive other businesses out of business. That's crazy, but when you run the cost-benefit analysis...blah, blah, blah.

This recent downswing in their stock price is certainly telling as well. Their "always low prices" strategy can only get them so far, and I think it's starting to backfire on them as people see how nice places like Target actually are.

Robert D. Bennett said...

I am a centrist Democrat, leaning more toward progressive views. I enjoy your blog and appreciate the fact that we seem to share the viewpoint despite a difference in party preference.

On to the topic at hand, I live in Texas and almost everybody shops at Wal Mart at one time or another.

My main gripe about them is not about the wages they pay workers, although I do agree it is shamefully low, but about their predatory pricing system and the way they put small businesses out of business.

Plus their stuff is crap, but that's for another day.

I agree that most Wal Mart shoppers voted for Bush. This phenomenon is explained in the book "Don't Think of an Elephant".

Look forward to exchanging ideas with you.

Posted by the Lemming Herder from

Adirondack Wal-Mart said...

Reasonable post but see if you can try to get Wal-Mart to work with you. It will never happen, except in communist China of course. Wal-Mart does what Wal-Mart wants to do.

Chesty said...

After months of opposition from community and labor groups, Wal-Mart has decided not to pursue the construction of a store on Staten Island, citing the expense of toxic waste clean-up of the planned site. Yeah, right...Staten Island and toxic, there's a convenient cover story if ever there was one...BUWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!

Sam I Am said...

I agree also with your post. My liberal friends go blah, blah, blah on the wages stuff and their protest of Walmart. People that work there are at least making a living and not relying on government. Somebody needs those jobs. I shop Walmart sometimes ONLY because of the hours. As a busy mom I can sneak there in the middle of the night when everyone is in bed. Target is always my number one choice. They are always clean and well kept. After a Walmart has been open for a year or two, I won't even take my dog in the bathroom. Look forward to meeting you in person someday soon, Brent and I are on your "support team" from Plymouth Creek. Enjoy your blogs and best wishes with the new location.